Mudflap Manifesto

The closest I’ve ever come to living life on the edge was probably when I saved 90% of my make-or-break A-Level coursework on a small, wonky USB stick without a lid, which I believe got lost because Dad Hoovered it up one day. The lack of a tiny plastic cap should have made the stick susceptible to dust, Dorito crumbs and other miscellaneous kinds of damage, but it miraculously made it through the entire two years of sixth form unscathed – and I still have it today. It’s been lying on a side table in my living room for a while now, and sat there largely untouched until I decided to plug it back into my laptop out of curiosity the other day.

I began to rummage through what it held, and alongside the aforementioned College materials lay some projects I probably started, but never finished, in the common room whilst I was supposed to be doing something else for a lesson. That seems to be the way in which all the best memories came about – when the teacher had left the room and we swiftly concluded that we’d “do this work later”. If I wasn’t mucking about with Will and co, however, I’d be writing something of my own. According to a file saved on my stick, I sat down one day in February 2014 to begin work on an autobiographical book that I gave the first alliterative title to pop into my head – Mudflap Manifesto, as the title of this post would suggest. It was something that would explore my oft-referenced love of motorsport and its significance in my life, over chapters that would collectively be divided into named sections. It would appear that I only got 11 pages in before becoming distracted and abandoning the project, but when I re-read what I’d written the other day, I was fairly satisfied and convinced that I might have something worth finishing at some point. And that’s pretty rare, believe me – because when it comes to writing, I often think that I am my own harshest critic.

The first section of the book was simply entitled “Guys, I’ve got a great idea”, and it opened by recounting a collision my wheelchair once had with a bench in the College quad on a rainy day. I must have felt that this was a good starting point for the book because it led to a visit to the folks in the Motor Vehicle Department, who took out their tools to bash my footplate back into shape whilst various decommissioned cars were being tinkered with nearby. As I could see them up close, I began to reflect on my lifelong passion for them, and particularly for when they are being driven at serious speed. I asked myself questions about where its roots lay, and what my feelings and standout memories are in relation to it, and I ultimately decided that the best way to express the answers would be in prose on a page. So I began with this anecdote, before proceeding to talk about how my wheelchair has always been seen as a racier vehicle than it actually is, putting forward my pitch for a less elitist form of motorsport that anyone with a working wheelchair can enter as I then paced about memory lane and my countless racing memories. Predictably, I seemed to have done this eagerly and fondly – of course, I wouldn’t ever say that the introduction was perfect, but I’ve probably written worse!

One thing that’s even rarer than a passable piece of writing from me is me giving any kind of written attention to the countryside, which many people know has never really appealed to me. Within the context of the book, I talked about our local Somerset Stages Rally and how – from our first visit in 2004 to the present day – it has been the only thing to significantly pique my interest in our local green surroundings. Whether we locate ourselves on a crest, a hairpin bend or any other sort of corner, it’s always a spectacle and one we’re very lucky to play host to in our secluded part of the world. When it leaves town, however, the forest tracks and trees lose their sparkle completely until the following year, and so does the rest of the extensive Exmoor tundra. The hills give me nothing apart from an occasionally acceptable location in which to eat a McDonald’s as the sun goes down, or a reason to prolong a leisurely evening drive with Mum, Dad or Louis. Or do they? Upon discovering the brief beginnings of Mudflap Manifesto, which have not been added to, edited or saved since April three years ago, I’ve realised that the great outdoors appear to have given me something worthwhile to build on, and something that allows me to bring back more awesome memories and connections to the sport I love. And I owe it all, in turn, to a single moment of College quad recklessness, followed by one of many fruitful common room laziness moments. Time well spent, don’t you think?



The Mightiest Team

When it comes to Formula One, I am often asked whether there is any particular team or driver that I root for. I almost always say no, because if someone impresses me on the track, they impress me, regardless of who they are or who they represent. In recent years, however, one or two people have come to know that there is a team to which I pledge a rapidly growing allegiance. They might not get the same TV coverage that Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull do as the teams at the very top of the sport, but I believe that their true racing spirit and all that they’ve had to endure through the past six and a half seasons should have earned them more respect than even the biggest F1 titans.

Manor Racing entered Formula One as Virgin Racing, following significant investment from Sir Richard Branson, at the start of the 2010 season. They accompanied two other new teams, Hispania Racing and Lotus Racing, the latter an effort from a Malaysian consortium making use of the famous Lotus name (which had last appeared in 1994) into the sport. Their debut weekend at the Bahrain Grand Prix wasn’t exactly plain sailing. Brazilian rookie Lucas di Grassi retired after only two laps due to a hydraulic failure – the hydraulics on the VR-01 car would give the team persistent headaches throughout the season – and his German team-mate Timo Glock was out after 16 when he lost two of his gears and found it impossible to continue. These reliability issues helped consign the team to 11th of 11 teams in the 2010 Constructors’ Championship, just behind the lucrative 10th place that can make or break a team financially. At the end of that season, however, I believed two things. Firstly, that the VR-01 was the coolest Formula One car I’d ever seen, and secondly that better things would come their way in the future.

Over the next couple of seasons, Glock and his respective team-mates, the Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio in 2011 and the Frenchman Charles Pic in 2012, raced boldly on in the quest to beat their rivals. By now the team was competing under the Marussia name, denoting the involvement of a Russian sports car manufacturer, and they were becoming gradually stronger as their immediate rivals – Hispania and Lotus/Caterham – faltered. 2013 marked the first time in the team’s short history that Glock was not a race driver, the seats in their red and black cars being taken by Britain’s Max Chilton and France’s Jules Bianchi. The latter driver was a very late signing, having just missed out on a Force India drive shortly beforehand, and this followed the collapse of a deal with Marussia’s original choice, Luiz Razia, when his sponsorship money disappeared. At the end of that year, in Brazil, Chilton became the first rookie driver ever to finish all of the races in their debut season, crossing the line 19 times out of a possible 19. Bianchi also impressed greatly, and he would take the team to even greater heights in 2014 – a season that would also see Marussia face their darkest hour.

On 25 May, Jules raced hard through 78 laps of the iconic Monaco street circuit to take ninth position and two points that would turn out to be vital for the team’s subsequent survival – former sporting director Graeme Lowdon admitted in 2015 that they would not have been around to race that year were it not for the financial windfall that the points bought to them. It was a display that confirmed Bianchi was destined to be a future champion, and in my opinion it is one of the greatest non-race-winning performances I have ever seen. At the following race, the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, the team were brought back down to Earth with a bump when their two drivers collided on the first lap, but despite this setback the team seemed to still be going from strength to strength. Then came a fateful race day at Suzuka, Japan, on 5 October 2014. I was one of the millions who witnessed the aftermath of the terrible accident that would ultimately rob the world of one of its brightest new motor racing talents, and when it became apparent that Jules’ condition was serious I honestly could not believe that this could still happen in an age of incredibly advanced safety standards. Sadly, however, it had happened, and I was infinitely more shocked when Jules passed away due to his injuries on 17 July last year.

All new Formula One teams have to overcome numerous hurdles if they want a long-term future in the sport. There are the obstacles associated with finance that Manor themselves had to overcome shortly after Jules’ accident, leading to them reverting to the name that founder John Booth had originally given his racing team in 1990 and using a year-old car and engine in 2015, and then there’s the battle to be competitive on track to fulfil every objective and make every hour of hard work from every member of the team viable. But alongside these, Manor have had to face the biggest tragedy of all in the loss of one of their own. In the face of this adversity they pressed on, more determined than ever under the most brilliant leadership from Booth and Lowdon and fuelled by the aforementioned pure racing spirit that I have detected and admired since their earliest days. Their perseverance has been rewarded, with new investment and new personnel both reaping rewards in 2016. The MRT05 is evidently Manor’s best car yet, and it was piloted to its first point since Monaco 2014 by the promising Pascal Wehrlein in Austria. His team-mates Rio Haryanto and Esteban Ocon have both also impressed me thus far, and the entire operation has continued to increase my admiration to ever higher levels. They came, they saw, they were devastasted, they continued, and I know they know that they can conquer. And aside from that, their cars look bloody cool. Manor Racing, rear-grid minnows? Not so, as for so many reasons – in my eyes at least – they are the mightiest team of all.


An Ode To Peeling Sunburn

Yesterday afternoon, Lewis Hamilton gave his home crowd at the British Grand Prix something to smile about by dominating and winning the race for the third year in succession, and for the fourth time in his career. The Silverstone circuit we saw yesterday provided an event full of rain, safety car starts, tyre changes and tricky car control that saw some good scraps further down the field. When I saw the same circuit over the weekend of 9-11 July 2010, however, I was greeted for three days straight by continuous sunshine and blistering heat that served as a very welcome accompaniment to what remains the best weekend of my entire life.

A few months before, Mum had told me we’d be attending the 2010 British Grand Prix on a Saturday morning as I was watching a repeat of the Top Gear Bolivia Special in my pyjamas. What was therefore a fairly normal morning was turned upside down when Mum announced that she’d just got off the phone having booked tickets for the Woodcote B stand, then located at the final corner of the track overlooking the pits and starting grid. It turned out to be the perfect vantage point for us, but upon hearing those words tumble from Mum’s mouth I was, of course, thrilled to be going there at all. It was a long-held ambition and when confirmation came it was nothing short of a dream come true for me. I seem to remember that for the next few months – right up until the moment we left for the circuit on that Friday morning – I was on cloud nine and without a care in the world. In the week before the race, I had my move-up day for Year 9, which would be starting soon, and I must have told all and sundry about my plans for the weekend whether they were interested or not. I know Formula One is an acquired taste for some people, so I apologise if I bored anyone to tears! On the big day, as we finally drove through the Silverstone entrance, it felt like we were entering a magical land, somewhere only the drivers, teams and privileged few got to see. After all, until that moment I’d only ever seen any part of the circuit on TV! Once we’d set up our tent and walked into the circuit, however – with engine notes from the F1 support races echoing off every structure and surface – I was able to confirm what I’d always been sure of, that the whole Grand Prix experience was not elitist at all (unfortunately I can’t say the same for the racing, as things stand, because it is rather costly).

Smiles greeted us at every turn from fans and workers alike, many of whom were dressed in attire from all eras of F1 history – the first man I saw was dressed not in an up-to-date shirt, but in a 1994 season Team Lotus shirt. Nobody was ever afraid to pass the time of day or discuss the action with us at any point, be it in the stands during a session or on the campsite before we ducked into our tent. Louis and I decided we had to look the part as they all did, so he bought a “rocket red” Vodafone McLaren Mercedes shirt whilst I opted for a Renault F1 Team equivalent emblazoned with the name, signature and race number 11 of Polish driver Robert Kubica. Of course, I still have the shirt, and on a school trip one week later almost had a heart attack when it got wet on a ride at an adventure park (“this cost me £30, you know!”) The most important aspect of the weekend was obviously to be witnessed on-track, though, and the sight of Michael Schumacher’s silver Mercedes – the first car to pass our position during the initial Friday practice session – formed an image that will stay etched on my brain for as long as I live, accompanying the unbelievable screams of the 2.4 litre V8 engine. Every car, of every category, on every single lap, was a sight to behold and as aforementioned we were in the perfect place to observe them. Our particular grandstand also allowed us to wave at the drivers as a truck carried them by on their parade before the race, and to watch Michael Schumacher and his team-mate Nico Rosberg pay a visit to a Mercedes merchandise stand on Saturday evening.

The Grand Prix itself was 52 laps of gripping excitement, and I used everything from my view of the track to the reflections the pit building was giving of the garages below to keep track of it. It saw Robert Kubica retire (after 19 laps, with a driveshaft problem), and was eventually won by Mark Webber of Red Bull Racing, with Lewis Hamilton second and Nico Rosberg third. “Not bad for a number two driver”, Webber controversially said over the radio after crossing the line – and I believe the fans present didn’t think he’d done too badly either. If a British driver couldn’t win the race, perhaps he was their next choice! We left Silverstone on Sunday evening nursing peeling sunburn thanks to our choice of sandals in the blistering heat, but carrying memories that – for me at least – would last a lifetime. A cracking programme of racing, fantastic camaraderie with everyone we met, sunburn we didn’t mind, and a delicious lamb shank we ate in the restaurant. What more could a race fan ask for? Surely it’s only a matter of time before I go again, and yesterday’s race only made that desire stronger.